February 10, 2022

In a niche corner of the legal world sits the oft-overlooked practice of appellate mediation. While it is occasionally covered by law school classes, it isn’t often discussed as a career path, and even for those pursuing other areas of the law, one is likely to encounter dispute resolution and contract mediation provisions. That is why Catholic Law alumna Jennifer Gartlan ’02, District of Columbia Court of Appeals (DCCA) Mediation Program Coordinator, emphasizes that for lawyers, “it’s important to understand what mediation is and what good mediation and client representation looks like.” Through the DCAA Mediation Program, Gartlan not only helps provide pro bono services for mediation cases but also provides opportunities for lawyers and law students to get involved in appellate mediation.

The DCCA implemented an early intervention mandatory mediation program in 2017. The program encompasses civil matters including administrative, civil, family, and probate appeals. So, most civil cases automatically get assessed to determine whether or not mediation is appropriate—giving parties involved an opportunity to resolve cases themselves with the assistance of a mediator. However, everyone is required to be represented by counsel in these types of proceedings. In late 2018, The DCCA Mediation Program announced a new initiative, the Pro Bono Mediation Counsel Panel, as a way of providing limited scope representation for those who would otherwise not be able to participate in mediation. The program has a vetted panel of pro bono lawyers made up of individuals who have been practicing law in civil cases for at least two years. When a case arises in which everyone wants to meditate, but not everyone has representation, one of the lawyers can be called upon to provide representation for the mediation.

These cases also provide opportunities for law students to connect with the court. Since taking over the DCCA Mediation Program in November 2018, Gartlan has upped student outreach efforts, so that interested students can also be assigned to cases at the request of the pro bono lawyers. When a student is requested and assigned to a case, they assist the attorney with research and legal strategy. Students also have the opportunity to sit in on and observe the mediation process. Because of the confidential nature of mediation, the chance to confidentially observe proceedings provides invaluable insight for students as they learn more about the process.

While not every pro bono counsel case gets a student, Gartlan has established a connection with Catholic Law so that interested students can sign up. Gartlan explained, “When we get information that a case is available, I’ll look at the list and see who hasn’t had a turn yet and reach out.” Catholic Law has had four students assist with cases so far, including two as recently as December 2021 and January 2022. In both cases, the students spoke highly of their experiences and received high praise for their work.

Giavanna White (3E) assisted in a foreclosure matter in December. Speaking about her experience, she shared, “After taking Appellate Advocacy with Professor Fair last spring, I became more intrigued with appellate work. As an evening student, I don't have much availability to participate in clinics or pro bono opportunities, but I am always looking for opportunities to gain practical experience that I am able to fit into my schedule. The DC Court of Appeals Mediation Program was a perfect fit because, as a law student volunteer, most of my responsibilities were centered around preparing the attorney for the mediation session. I reviewed the case file and drafted a memo summarizing the issues of the case, which I was able to do on my own time and outside of normal business hours. I was also able to attend the mediation session which was such an enlightening experience. The attorney was able to navigate difficult and complicated conversations with so much compassion and patience even though he did not necessarily agree with many of the client's decisions. The experience reminded me of what being an advocate truly means: ensuring your client is well-informed, having empathy, listening, and taking the necessary steps to support your client's decisions. I look forward to more opportunities to learn and grow from other attorneys in future mediation sessions."

In January, John Roberts (3L) worked on an unemployment matter. He shared his appreciation for the practical skills he learned on the job. “Having the opportunity to do pro bono work with the DCCA Mediation Program was a valuable experience. Of course, the opportunity to get advice and practical knowledge is a rare opportunity that will help in my legal career, but being able to work to help a client in need was truly fulfilling. So much of what gets taught in law school is how to read and think about laws, but being able to use some of what I know to solve someone's problem is an experience I will cherish.”

Of course, it’s not just students who play an important role within the program, it’s also the lawyers who volunteer their time. Gartlan noted that the more alumni volunteers there are, the more opportunities there are available for students to be involved. Catholic Law alumnus McGavock “Mac” Reed ’15 joined the DCCA Mediation Program panel and has seen firsthand the benefits of such a program. “​​I would say the mediation program provides several unique opportunities for D.C.-area practitioners. 1) It helps clients of limited resources benefit from the advice of counsel when considering complex appellate issues, 2) It eases the burden on our highly congested courts, and 3) It’s a great opportunity for young lawyers and law students to get hands-on experience in appellate litigation.”

As the lawyer who worked directly with Roberts on the case in January, Reed added, “In this particular case, I was able to work together with a dedicated and intelligent law student, and a motivated and cooperative pro se client, to develop an outline of an appellate argument and ultimately come up with a creative solution that resulted in both parties walking away from the appeal feeling happy. It was a great experience and I hope to replicate it soon.” He concluded, “I was called to participate because of my passion for appellate advocacy and desire to give back to the community. It’s an excellent avenue for service-minded lawyers and law students to give back, and a good source of experience. Often young lawyers who wish to develop appellate skills are limited to support roles, and this program helps them to gain valuable experience.”

Gartlan, who is also the Co-Chair of the American Bar Association Dispute Resolution Section’s Court ADR Committee, is eager to implement practices and initiatives to increase interest in this area of the law. She recently co-facilitated an ABA roundtable discussion regarding mediator development and careers in the dispute resolution field and in January, the DCCA Mediation Program launched a new internship program for the spring semester of 2022 that they hope to continue over the summer and for future semesters.

Gartlan concluded, “Understanding how to resolve conflict is the foundation of what we do as attorneys. Our program offers a unique service that provides access to justice for parties that seek to settle their disputes. It also provides meaningful practical experience for the next generation of attorneys and mediators in the ever-expanding dispute resolution field.”